TEHRAN: Iran's president on Wednesday ordered authorities to investigate a series of incidents in which noxious fumes have sickened students at girls' schools, which some officials suspect are attacks targeting women's education.
Hundreds of girls at around 30 schools have been sickened since November, with some winding up in hospital beds. Officials initially dismissed the incidents, only acknowledging the scope of the crisis in recent days.
Children have complained about headaches, heart palpitations, feeling lethargic or otherwise unable to move. Some described smelling tangerines, chlorine or cleaning agents.
On Wednesday, more than 100 students were hospitalised after a new spate of suspected gas attacks on girls’ schools.
At least 10 girls’ schools were targeted in the latest suspected attacks on Wednesday, seven of them in the northwestern city of Ardabil and three in the capital Tehran, media reported.
The incident in Ardabil forced the hospitalisation of 108 students, all of whom were in stable condition, said Tasnim news agency, which also reported poisonings at three schools in Tehran.
Citing parents, Fars news agency said students at a high school in the capital’s western neighbourhood of Tehransar had been exposed to a toxic spray. It did not elaborate.
Fars said the security forces had detained three people in the first reported arrests over the wave of suspected poisoning attacks on girls’ schools.
Since the outbreak of the mysterious poisonings in November, almost 1,200 students have required hospitalisation for breathing difficulties, a lawmaker said Wednesday.
They included nearly 800 in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, and 400 in the western city of Borujerd, said Zahra Sheikhi, spokesperson for the Iranian parliament’s health committee.
Unlike neighbouring Afghanistan, Iran has no history of religious extremists targeting girls' education. Women and girls continued attending school even at the height of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled Iran's Western-backed monarchy.
At a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Ebrahim Raisi said the Interior Ministry should probe the incidents, with help from the health and intelligence ministries, and promptly release the results to the public, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.
The night before the Cabinet meeting, a senior security official had downplayed the matter, dismissing it as psychological warfare by unnamed enemies of the country.
“Over 99 per cent of this is caused by stress, rumour and psychological war started particularly by hostile TV channels, to create a troubled and stressful situation for students and their parents,” the deputy interior minister, Majid Mirahmadi, told state TV. “Their goal was to force schools to close.”
The poisonings come at a sensitive time for Iran, which has faced months of nationwide protests since a young woman died in September after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating Iran's strict Islamic dress code.
After months of downplaying the poisonings, state-run IRNA filed multiple stories on the subject on Sunday in which officials acknowledged the scope of the incidents.
Iran’s prosecutor-general has ordered an investigation, saying “there are possibilities of deliberate criminal acts.” IRNA quoted a deputy health minister as saying that unnamed people wanted the schools to close.
Suspected extremists attacked women with acid for not dressing conservatively enough around the Iranian city of Isfahan in 2014. But there's no opposition to women's education in Shiite Islam, and Iran has even called on the Taliban in Afghanistan to let women and girls return to school.